Library Cookbook Book Clubs

Library Cookbook Book Clubs

Books are a source of comfort and joy for many people. Cooking and eating fall into that same category. And for the center of the Venn diagram where people who love books and food, some libraries are offering a dream combo: Cookbook book clubs.

What that kind of book club looks like varies from library to library, with the pandemic further altering the approaches. Debbie Estrella, the adult services librarian for the Tiverton Library in Tiverton, Rhode Island, noted that her cookbook club began in 2017 and has been a success. “It’s a great program for people who like cooking, but don’t necessarily want to read a book,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, we came together for a meal every month. It was a great way to have a community gathering and conversation.”

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It was also a feast in the pre-pandemic days. “Every month was a different cookbook. If we didn’t have enough copies in the system of the same book, we’d pick an author or a theme. The participants would RSVP with what they’d like to make from the book. Then we’d have a huge potluck. Instead of trying one or two things from a cookbook, we got to try up to 20 recipes this way.”

The club evolved to having two annual events around food as well. “At Christmas, we usually do a cookie swap. We meet at a senior housing complex, using the community room, so people can bring wine if they like. Everyone brings their favorite cookie.” In the summer, there’s an anniversary celebrating the cookbook book club where people bring one of their favorite recipes.

COVID changed the format, and the book club continues on Zoom. That’s not only changed the way the club works, but who attends. “Many of our community are seniors, and some don’t know or are intimidated by technology, so they haven’t joined in,” said Estrella. “But we’ve had people register from other communities, including Texas, California, North Caroline. People coming all over.”

Even if the potluck aspect is temporarily sidelined, people are still enthused. “People either hold the dish they made up to the camera, or they have a photo on their computer and share their screen,” said Estrella. “We recently had one person who was so enthused about the book that they tried several recipes over the month.”

Prior to the pandemic Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offered two cookbook clubs: the Cook Book Club that met monthly to discuss specific books and try dishes from the chosen book, and Dish!, offered at multiple branches to discuss specific cookbooks, share stories and cultures, and explore various culinary topics. The programs were popular, but are on hiatus for the time being, with the plan being to reinstate when it’s safe to do so again.

Karen Christiansen, the adult services librarian for the Paso Robles City Library in Paso Robles, California, used the pandemic as a reason to start a cookbook club. “When the library closed in 2020, we wondered what kind of programs we could do online,” she said. “Our monthly book club translated online, and we thought a cookbook club would too.”

People were enthused about the idea. Christiansen chose cookbooks that were available on the hoopla platform, which has synchronous use, meaning anyone in her system could access the same book. Once the month’s book was chosen, participants were asked to make a recipe and send in a photo of it the dish, which Christiansen compiled into a document to share on Zoom. “It was like show and tell,” she said. “Each participant talked about what they made and what they thought of it, did they like it, did their family like it. Then we discussed the book itself. I wanted to make sure to emphasize the word ‘book,’ not ‘cook.’”

The community aspect allowed people with varying levels of cooking experience to help each other. “People tried new things, went out of their comfort zone,” Christiansen said. “We did a Keto cookbook, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, a Jewish and a Christmas cookbook at the holidays.”

Going out of their comfort zones led to new discoveries. “It was fun in that when we see what others chose, we often thought, ‘I would never have picked that, but now I want to try it.’”

As to the post-pandemic future, Christiansen is mulling options. “We don’t have a commercial kitchen, and we can’t do a community potluck,” she said. “But our community has a strong restaurant scene, so we could have a chef demo a technique. It would be more like a cooking class.” Which route Christiansen’s library goes will depend on public interest. Gauging what the local community wants is a critical part of setting up a library cookbook club, as is working to meet people where they are.

If you’d like to see your library begin a cookbook club, talk to your local librarians, who are likely approachable and truly interested in what the community wants. A good way to start is by surveying local library users as to what they’re interested in — a cookbook discussion group, a potluck (where allowed by local health authorities), what levels of cooking expertise already exist, and what kinds of cookbooks people would like to study — can help libraries begin a cookbook club that will appeal to its community.